In May 2018, Childish Gambino (Donald Glover’s musical alter-ego) dropped the single “This Is America.” ¹ Critics generated think piece after think piece dedicated to analyzing the video, which was laden with visual symbolism, including references to Jim Crow, the 2015 Charleston Church massacre, police brutality, hip hop tropes, James Brown, and global Black dance moves. What started as a seemingly clear statement—“This Is America”—resulted in a myriad of perspectives as to what exactly America was for Donald Glover.
The song was popular immediately after its release, and it had a resurgence in the renewed Black Lives Matter protests following the killing of George Floyd. But the song came to my mind again after the January 6 riots at, and in, the United States Capitol Building. In the aftermath, politicians and others seemed to stumble over themselves, insisting one after the other that “this is not America.” It would seem they are correct: the United States boasts the longest-running continuous democracy in the world, and what the world witnessed at the Capitol—an extremist mob attempting to prevent by force the certification of election results—was fundamentally undemocratic. But amid those rushing to claim that “this was not America,” I (and so many others) wondered what America actually was, if not “this.”
As I revisited “This is America,” I sought a way of understanding yet another new moment of cultural pain and trauma. I was struck by what I see as Glover’s critique of love, and, in particular, his critique of White love of Black culture expressed through dualities: pleasure and profit, value and violence. The song begins with a South African choral sound in a major key, sounding upbeat and effervescent—it is hard not to groove along with Glover. But in the lyrics, he offers a critique on the music industry writ large, singing from the perspective of White industry executives to Black artists, “We just wanna party, party just for you / We just want the money, money just for you. / I know you want to party, party just for me (free).” The White industry executives begin each line focused on themselves and what they want, before quickly changing the frame, seemingly centering Black artists’ needs and wants, masking their ultimately selfish ambitions.
I was struck by what I see as Glover’s critique of love, and, in particular, his critique of White love of Black culture expressed through dualities: pleasure and profit, value and violence.
In the video, Glover dances to the music until he suddenly, without warning, pulls out a handgun and shoots a hooded guitarist, Glover’s body taking the pose of Jim Crow, the racist character from blackface minstrelsy. The video’s action does not stop (the gun is taken lovingly away while the body is dragged across the cement floor), but the music shifts to a hip hop beat and Glover begins to rap, “This is America.” Not one minute into the song and Glover has already juxtaposed a bop with a racial capitalist critique, implicating White industry executives in the lyrics, Black artists in a seeming willingness to enact violence against the self, and White audiences in the ability to shift so quickly between grooves. ²
Throughout the rest of the video, Glover himself operates as a distraction; his dancing, his enactment of facial expressions recalling minstrelsy, his use of hip hop tropes each fulfill the stereotyped and racialized role of a Black performer to an uncomfortable extreme. But all around the scene, chaos reigns—if the viewer focuses on Glover and the young dancers in school uniforms that surround him, they will miss people (protesters?) running, people falling from balconies and dancing on cars, a vehicle on fire, and (possibly) one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse. But still, it is Glover’s video—our attention is supposed to be on him. Right?
Glover seems to suggest that audiences’ love of Black performers has distracted them from Black lives; that White audiences have been in the groove too long and need to be disrupted to hear the message, but suggests that no disruption will actually work to shift their/our attention. Instead, White audiences’ love of Black culture is more about themselves than about the Black musicians they follow. Nowhere is this clearer than in the moment just under two minutes into the video in which Glover is handed an assault rifle and shoots a Black choir. The moment is jarring and lasts only two seconds before Glover hands the gun off, walks away from the scene, and immediately returns to rap “This Is America.” The moment is a stark reminder of the Charleston church massacre at the Emanuel AME Church in 2015, which occupied the mind and hearts of many for a moment, and then, as Glover suggests, the moment passed all too quickly.
In the midst of varying ideas and ideals about what America is, love was repeatedly invoked. What does it mean to love a country? What does it mean to love America? And what does it mean when avowed expressions of love actually look like violence and hate?
Such jarring transitions and dualities call into question what love of Black culture means and how it operates. Glover plays with viewers’ love of Black music and culture, and in particular, the idea that White people have historically loved Black culture (blackface minstrelsy, jazz, hip hop—to name only a few musical genres) while doing very little to support Black citizenship, Black bodies, or Black lives. As Wesley Morris writes, “Loving black culture has never meant loving black people, too.”
I suppose I was drawn to “This Is America” in the days following January 6 because of the way it unveils violence and abuse masquerading as love. Politicians and citizens holding vastly different ideologies fought to control what loving America is, what that love looks like, and who is capable of expressing that love. In the midst of varying ideas and ideals about what America is, love was repeatedly invoked. What does it mean to love a country? What does it mean to love America? And what does it mean when avowed expressions of love actually look like violence and hate?
Feminist scholar Sara Ahmed wrote at length about love and the nation in her 2004 book The Cultural Politics of Emotion (also shared on her blog). ³ Analyzing the words of White nationalists in online spaces like Stormfront and Aryan Nations, Ahmed asked, “How has politics become a struggle over who has the right to name themselves as acting out of love and in the name of love? What does it mean to stand for love by standing alongside some others and against other others?” White nationalist hate groups have occupied strongholds on the internet nearly since its inception (Stormfront was founded in 1990 by Don Black, a leader of the KKK in Alabama). But as Ahmed explains, those hate groups often redefine themselves in terms of love: “Such organisations claim they act out of love for their own kind, and for the nation as an inheritance of kind (‘Our White Racial Family’), rather than out of hatred for strangers or others.”
Indeed, as Seyward Darby, author of Sisters in Hate: American Women on the Front Lines of White Nationalism, found, love is a key recruitment tool for White supremacists; White men and women find community based on mutual feelings of resentment toward those outside the group; a social bond that delivers intense feelings of belonging. Love operates as a way to make the racialized hate championed by White supremacists respectable, and as Darby argues, White women (especially mothers) play an integral role in creating an aura of respectability—a sense of love—around hate; in Darby’s words, “putting a smiling face on an odious ideology.” ⁴
President Trump has, both very recently and in the past, spoken a lot about love, as have his supporters. In his seventy-minute speech at the Ellipse on January 6 (the speech many credit as having especially incited the siege on the Capitol), he used the word fifteen times, often directed toward those physically present in the crowd, and supporters around the country.
When these groups frame themselves around love (of nation, liberty, freedom, the flag), Ahmed writes, “love is narrated as the emotion that energies [sic] the work of such groups; it is out of love that the group seeks to defend the nation against others, whose presence then becomes defined as the origin of hate.” In other words, the origin of hate are Others, those who do not love the nation, liberty, freedom, or the flag. The hate group becomes the hated group, who are simply “seeking to defend the nation against others, who threaten to steal the nation away.”
President Trump has, both very recently and in the past, spoken a lot about love, as have his supporters. In his seventy-minute speech at the Ellipse on January 6 (the speech many credit as having especially incited the siege on the Capitol), he used the word fifteen times, often directed toward those physically present in the crowd, and supporters around the country. Trump sprinkled his “love” throughout his speech at the Ellipse: the first mention of love was that he would love if the supporters present could come up onto the stage ( surrounded by bullet-proof protections) with him, asking the Secret Service and military if they would allow that (thus putting the blame on those agents for not following through on his act of love); he loves Wisconsin and Georgia (“I love Georgia, but it’s a corrupt system”—a statement that allows him to simultaneously love and hate); he demonstrates his love by expressing care and concern for supporters (“So, I mean, I could go on and on about this fraud that took place in every state and all of these legislators want this back. I don’t want to do it to you because I love you and it’s freezing out here”—said one hour into his seventy-minute speech); and finally, he expresses his love of symbols of America (“I love Pennsylvania Avenue”) just before he encourages his supporters to go with him to the Capitol to give “weak” Republicans “the kind of pride and boldness that they need to take back our country.”
But he also offered more direct expressions of love that follow descriptions outlined by Ahmed. He told his supporters: “Many of you have traveled from all across the nation to be here, and I want to thank you for the extraordinary love. That is what it is; there’s never been a movement like this ever, ever for the extraordinary love for this amazing country. And this amazing movement.” Here, Trump calls out the crowd’s love for him, for the country, and for their political movement (how directly that movement is associated with the Republican Party is, as ever, debatable).
But the context of this love is also important: immediately preceding this expansive expression of “extraordinary love,” Trump noted Vice President Mike Pence’s recent statement that he did not have the power to reject electoral votes, as Trump had wanted. Trump explained to the crowd that, “All Vice President Pence has to do is send it back to the states to recertify, and we become president, and you are the happiest people. And I actually I just spoke to Mike. I said, Mike, that doesn’t take courage, what takes courage is to do nothing.” While it’s unclear as to what action or non-action was the more courageous of the actions, Trump clearly places Pence outside the community; Pence has become someone who does not love, and therefore cannot experience this “extraordinary love.” As Ahmed explains, love is not only a “sign of being for the nation,” but it also connects “subjects who are constructed as ‘loving’”—love not only produces an ideal object or citizen, but reproduces an ideal collective. There is little doubt that the crowd gathered to “Save America” felt that collective; Trump supporters noted to NBC that “there was an immediate shift in tone in the crowd when the news came about Pence’s decision. A demonstration in support of Trump turned terrifying as ‘patriots’ became ferocious and angry about what they perceived as a double cross, they said.”
Following his summary of Pence’s lack of support, Trump continued, explaining that “then we are stuck with a president who lost the election by a lot, and we have to live with that for four more years. We’re just not going to let that happen.” Elsewhere in the speech, he tells supporters, “We will never give up. We will never concede. It will never happen. You don’t concede when there’s theft involved. Our country has had enough. We will not take it anymore.” As he had done throughout the end of his presidency, he defines exactly who has perpetrated the theft of the White House, and therefore, supposedly, stolen the voice of the people: “All of us here today do not want to see our election victory stolen by a bold and radical left Democrats which is what they are doing and stolen by the fake news media. That is what they have done and what they are doing.”
Even as he directs his ire toward members of the media (the “fake news media”) and toward Democrats writ large (the “radical left”), Trump’s well-documented politics of grievance are simultaneously about hate (which the “fake news” and “radical left” supposedly perpetuate) and love (which he and his supporters ostensibly act on). Love is not spoken in these words, but according to Ahmed, love is still present. In fact, absence becomes part of love in these moments; as Ahmed writes, “Love is most powerfully narrated when the [love-]object [the nation] is missing; then love ‘shows itself’ through lamenting the absence of the object, or through the display of grief or mourning…the nation as loved object has been taken away and the ‘injury’ of the theft must be repeated as a way of confirming the love for the nation as an ideal object.” Trump has already defined the love-objects for this community—Trump himself, the nation, and the movement. Now, he outlines the ways in which the loss of each of these love-objects is supposedly threatened: Trump is threatened with a loss of the presidency, Trump supporters are threatened with the loss of voice, and the movement is threatened with the loss of power to mold and define the nation. Even the name of the rally—the “Save America” rally—expresses these threats, inviting those who love Trump, the nation, and the movement to attend.
But perhaps nowhere did Trump lay out the threats their community of “extraordinary love” faced in more dire terms than toward the end of the speech, where he juxtaposed accomplishments of his presidency surrounding immigration with cataclysmic new “realties” under a Biden presidency:
“We are the greatest country on earth, and we are headed and were headed in the right direction. You know the wall is built; we are doing record numbers at the wall. Now they want to take down the wall. Let’s let everyone flow in. Let’s let everybody flow in. We did a great job on the wall. Remember the wall; they said it could never be done, one of the largest infrastructure projects we have ever had in this country, and it has had a tremendous impact and we got rid of catch and release, we got rid of all of the stuff that we had to live with. But now the caravans they think Biden is getting in the caravans are forming again. They want to come in again and rip off our country, can’t let it happen.”
Again, Trump frames the love-object (the nation) in terms of loss, and importantly, in terms of mass immigration, a threat that particularly ignites White supremacists’ expressions of hate as love, as Ahmed writes. By focusing his attention on immigration, and immigration at the southern border in particular, Trump clearly focuses his narrative of love on White Americans—perhaps like those White men who chanted “You will not replace us” and “Jews will not replace us” in Charlottesville in 2017. As if to make plain the relationship between fear and loss and love, Trump immediately returns to the love he shares with his supporters: “As this enormous crowd shows, we have truth and justice on our side. We have a deep and enduring love for America in our hearts. We love our country. We have overwhelming pride in this great country. We have it deep in our souls. Together we are determined to defend and preserve government of the people, by the people, and for the people.”
Even as he directs his ire toward members of the media (the “fake news media”) and toward Democrats writ large (the “radical left”), Trump’s well-documented politics of grievance are simultaneously about hate (which the “fake news” and “radical left” supposedly perpetuate) and love (which he and his supporters ostensibly act on).
In this moment, Trump also elevates himself and his supporters to defenders of democracy—ostensibly rightful heirs of the power to define and uphold national values. They are, as Ivanka Trump would later tweet (and then delete), “American patriots”; at the riot at the Capitol, “Don’t Tread on Me,” Betsy Ross, Confederate and other flags mingled with various Trump flags to assert a direct line of succession from Revolutionary War heroes through Confederates to their place in the present day. Though an obvious re-write and simplification of American history, such a notion of political/patriotic lineage elevates pro-Trump extremists. As Ahmed writes, “The emotion of hate works to animate the ordinary subject, to bring that fantasy to life, precisely by constituting the ordinary as in crisis, and the ordinary person as the real victim.”
Trump supporters who continue to support Trump, even after he has been widely credited by both Democrats and Republicans for having incited a riotous mob that has left five dead, recite these familiar refrains of love. In an interview with NBC, Colleen (who did not share her last name) framed her response around ordinary citizens in a fantasy of their own making, explaining, “I think you had a group of pissed-off patriots. They just couldn’t take it anymore.” Trump supporter Taylor Golden defined Trump as the primary love-object, explaining to the BBC that though the violence and rioting at the Capitol was “heart-breaking to watch,” “It doesn’t change my support for Trump. The people that love Trump, that’s not going to change no matter if he gets a second term or not. It just means we’re going to hold out for 2024 and hope either he runs again or his kids do.” Fox News’ Pete Hegseth reaffirmed that Trump supporters define themselves around love (and loss), explaining, “These are not conspiracy theorists motivated just by lies. They love freedom and they love free markets, and they see exactly what the anti-American Left has done to America.” Attacks on individuals (notably Vice President Pence and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi) and the media (demonstrated most clearly by Capitol surfaces defaced with the words “Murder the Media” and physical attacks against photojournalists and media equipment) perpetrated by the mob further demonstrated the ways in which love can be used in the service of hate.
The loss that each of these supporters feels reproduces their feelings of love in a loop. As Ahmed writes, “The subject ‘stays with’ the nation, despite the absence of return and the threat of violence, as leaving would mean recognising that the investment of national love over a life time has brought no value. One loves the nation, then, out of hope and with nostalgia for how it might have been.”
Many have noted that in the hours following the siege on the Capitol, as pro-Trump extremists continued to wander through the Capitol, Trump should have acted quickly to calm his supporters. Instead, he posted a belated sorry/not sorry video that yet again reaffirmed love as a core tenet of his movement: “We love you. You’re very special. You’ve seen what happens. You see the way others are treated—that are so bad and so evil. I know how you feel, but go home and go home in peace.” Trump again elevated the cause of the ordinary, expressed direct affection, and defined others (not Trump supporters) as those who hate and who steal and seek to supplant his supporters. Love yet again was used as a powerful and unobjectionable force that binds, concealing, however thinly, the hate espoused in the ideologies of the various White supremacist groups present at the Capitol. As Ahmed writes most plainly, “Because we love, we hate and this hate is what makes us together.”
Many who were appalled by the violence and mayhem insisted that what happened on January 6 was not America (most notably then president-elect Joe Biden, but also a bipartisan chorus of Congresspersons and former presidents). But someone else shared identical sentiments—an anonymous Trump supporter present at the Capitol who, if asked, would likely quickly attest to her love of country: “’This is not America,’ a woman said to a small group, her voice shaking. She was crying, hysterical. ‘They’re [police] shooting at us. They’re supposed to shoot BLM, but they’re shooting the patriots.’” And just like that, “This is not America” was replayed as an overt definition of the nation around White supremacy. ⁵
For Ibram X. Kendi, such denials of what America is have fundamentally become part of the definition of America: “All of what we saw at the U.S. Capitol is part of America. But what’s also part of America is denying all of what is part of America … Denial is the heartbeat of America.” He writes that “Trump is the heartbeat of American denial in its clearest form,” and that though Trump demonstrates the extremes of denial, both his supporters, in denying election results, and Americans who say “This is not who we are” are ultimately denying the other in their definition of America.
NPR correspondent Sam Sanders similarly queried the relationship between love of country, definitions of country, and race, citing Trump’s repeated assertions of birtherism, his announcing his candidacy calling Mexican immigrants rapists, his travel ban against Muslim-majority countries, and support from former KKK leader David Duke, “Trump’s presidency has always been about race and reacting to a nation more diverse than it has ever been. We’ve been reminded of that time and again since he announced his candidacy. So how can anyone still say, ‘This is not who we are’? Why do we continue to hear that same lie as the worst of America rears its head?” When Sanders asks why we continue to hear the lie that “This is not America,” he is also questioning who holds the power to define what America is, and further, why those definitions continue to circulate around White discomfort with race and racial reckoning.
The invocations of “This is not America” by both Biden and the unnamed Trump supporter are uttered with equal fervor and conviction; both fight a loss of what they thought defined the America they love, and both exclude others based on that love.
I know that for some, the song “This is America” offers nothing in the way of love; critique of America or its processes often triggers accusations of a lack of patriotic love of country. However, as Ahmed points out, defining love of country around good feelings does not mean that hate is not part of that relationship. Likewise, by focusing on White love of Black culture, Glover offers an implicit critique of who gets to define love; given that much of the Black culture he cites, from blackface minstrelsy (America’s first popular musical form) to James Brown, has defined American culture writ large, Glover also offers a racial critique of who gets to define love and how love of nation (through culture) appears.
The invocations of “This is not America” by both Biden and the unnamed Trump supporter are uttered with equal fervor and conviction; both fight a loss of what they thought defined the America they love, and both exclude others based on that love. Neither includes the other in their vision of the national ideal. However, by affirming that “This Is America,” we might instead assert a love similar to that suggested by James Baldwin, who writes in Notes of a Native Son, “I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” ⁶ Baldwin’s love is not about pleasure, nor is it about loss (for he had few privileges to lose). But it is about a clear-eyed honesty that refuses to allow love to operate in the service of hate.
Better still, we might assert a meaning of nation in which citizenship is not based on being worthy of love—a worthiness that throughout American history has been too hard-earned for Black, Indigenous, Latinx, and other people of color, and forever subject to debate.